San Francisco Private Investigator

Montreal Police Strike - 1969

October 2008 marks the 39th anniversary of the Montreal Police "general strike."  This was probably one of the few instances of a major metropolitan North American police force pulling such a drastic job action. It must also be viewed in context with the overall political climate in Montreal, and Quebec in the late 1960's.  There were liberal and radical sectors of the province's sovereignty movement; other labor struggles; the battle to remove Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau, a deep conservative who's policies predated Rudy Giuliani's decades later; plus a huge counter-cultural movement in Montreal at the time. I grew up learning about the class struggle, but being there then I watched it unfold.
   
       On the eve of the strike, Drapeau and budgetary henchmen were poised to cut police officer's benefit contributions, and double their work loads. The largely Francophone force, additionally protested growing wage disparities between their force, and that of police forces in Anglophone communities surrounding the city.   Long traditional two-officer patrols were slated to be replaced by one-officer patrols.  Sound like a familiar scenario?

    On October 7, 1969, police union leadership and rank and file met at Montreal's famed Paul Sauve Arena to decide how they would respond to the labor attacks. They sent last minute demands to the provincial government, which went unmet. The police force, numbering some 4000 officers ultimately decided to take a "study day," what we might call here a "sick-out."  Metropolitan firefighters joined in solidarity and went out on strike as well.

   There were many bank robberies; much looting in central Montreal; a gun store was ransacked; and Molotov cocktails were thrown. Doubtless there were uncounted scores of common crimes that went unanswered.  One of the chief street battles that took place was between members and supporters of the Taxi Liberation Movement, who took their struggle to the headquarters of the Murray Hill Company.  The latter had been granted an exclusive and financially valuable contract to transport airline passengers at Dorval airport, thus eliminating an important Taxi drivers' take. A general state of "anarchy" ensued, as local and provincial leaders as well as the media categorized it. Two people were killed, including a provincial police officer.  There was other gunfire, and a couple of million dollars in destruction resulted from the downtown "riot."

    The provincial government did not delay in responding.  Before dawn of the next day October 8 Law 61 was in effect forcing striking police to return to work or face penalties and even imprisonment.  Provincial police were called in, as was limited federal army intervention by the famed 22nd Regiment, an all French Canadian unit. Officers quickly returned to work as compelled; nonetheless the general political climate in Quebec continued to simmer.

    What is the significance of the Montreal Police Strike of 1969?  More obscure, there was one in 1943 when the issue was the officer's demand they be recognized as public works employees which they were not at the time.  In a broader context the1969 strike, and the not long-after Canadian federal postal workers strike, or even much later, the US air traffic controllers actions that lead to Ronald Reagan's mass firings, are representative of government imposing strong measures on public sector workers.  Federal and local governments have concentrated their control over this growing sector of the work force, the public sector.  Their hard line, no job actions tolerated stance, and subsequent laws enacted have virtually crippled the sector's ability to exercise "theoretical" labor rights.

    But what does that mean specifically in the case of police officers?  Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, many are aware of the City Of Vallejo's recent declaration of bankruptcy, and city leaders calls to "Public Safety" employees [Police, Fire etc.] to take cuts.  The budgets of these public safety departments in the case of Vallejo accounted for well over half the city's total budget.  Some members of that community questioned if that was "out of whack" with city residents’ over all needs.

    Do we consider police officers or firefighters as entitled to certain privileges as workers?  If they perceive that their value in a community going under appreciated, do we expect them to not behave as other workers might in a similar context?  Historically, and today the composition of most police forces is overwhelmingly made up of individuals from working class backgrounds. Theories of policing change; go in and out of popularity, yet greatly effect officers’ daily activities. One might argue that distancing police forces from the communities they work in was considered a good thing, including as an anti-corruption measure. No doubt mistrust of the police continues in many sectors of the public.

    By my perception of it, the Montreal Police Strike of 1969 was an aberration. It was a rare instance when law enforcement, which is in a critical position of protecting the status quo, threw in its lot with other sectors of the working class.  They made legitimate demands, and were swiftly repressed.  Will we see a renewed interest by such groups in the public sector, perhaps in future Vallejos, were the police might flex their muscle like in Montreal1969?  Given the current economic conditions, it might not be excluded.


 To view historical reportage use:

Archives de Radio-Canada [in French, Government Channel, and quite different than English]  

http://archives.cbc.ca/politics/civil_unrest/clip/12238/ [CBC- English Government Channel]

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